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Dragon Magazine Covers (1) - Intro

Posted by mr_orgue on 2007.03.11 at 14:55
Earlier, in response to a post by Brand mentioning sexist imagery on Dragon Magazine covers, I broke out my Dragon back issues and did a quick survey of imagery (mostly interior art) at different points in time. (That post is here.)

As a follow-up to that, I sunk some time into a fuller survey of imagery on Dragon’s covers down through the years. This is what I found.

What I did

I went through every cover of Dragon magazine using the best image I could find - mostly real issues and pdfs, but some off the Paizo website back-issue catalogue here.

For each cover depicting a woman, I recorded:

  • Women as either focal (F) or not (N)

  • Women as either appealing game avatars (A), submissive (S), or neither (N)

  • Women as either suggestively attired (X) or not (N)

Then I did exactly the same for covers with depictions of men.

(Note that I didn’t count kids, most monsters, or dwarves. Yeah, I know, dwarves. Do you know how many Dragon covers have featured dwarves? Lots and lots, that’s how many. I didn’t count them because, to my mind, they don’t “count” in the same way as other non-monstrous humanoids do. Once or twice I did count a monstrous figure that had a human torso, particularly if that torso was a shapely woman with large breasts.)

Because Dragon has sometimes had an irregular publishing schedule, and to ensure there were enough images in each set to be meaningful, I divided the data into 25-issue blocks (1-25, 26-50, and on through to 326-350).

All the raw data is hand-coded at present but if anyone’s keen I’ll take the time to transfer it.

Explaining My Categories

(If there’s a higher-res image available I’ve made the cover image clickable through to it.)

Focal/Not Focal

The Focal/Not Focal distinction was to separate out prominent images from minor ones. I could have made this more complicated but decided to keep it simple. A Focal depiction is one where you look at the image and say, Yeah, that figure is the main focus. A Not Focal is one where there are a bunch of figures sharing the spotlight, or where a Focal figure is accompanied by other, less focal figures.

(This category didn’t seem to make much difference in the end.)


Issue 273, July 2000 - this image has a clear Focal character.

Issue 115, November 1986 - this image has no Focal character.

Issue 65, September 1982 - a trickier one. I classed this image as having a Focal character (the guy with the sword in the front centre) and several non-Focal characters (including the woman in the doorway).

Submissive/Appealing Avatar/Neither

I started out coding these separately. Whether a depiction showed a character as being submissive (weak, powerless, deferential, etc.) or not was one category. Whether a depiction showed a character as being an appealing game avatar (I wanna play that guy!) was another. When I finished coding I realized that there were, of course, no crossover points - a submissive figure cannot be an appealing avatar. So I combined these two categories into one.

Of course, these evaluations are very subjective. I tried to be, at the very least, consistent.


Issue 177, January 1992 - my pick for the most sexist cover to ever grace Dragon Magazine. The woman is helpless in a cage, for crying out loud.

Issue 340, Feb 2006. I classed this one as submissive. She’s doing something at least, performing some crazy magic spell, but she’s also on her knees with legs spread towards the reader, and her arms are thrown behind her head in a way that suggests subliminally that she’s tied up or something. That’s how I read it anyway.

Issue 269, March 2000. Not submissive. She’s standing in a neutral mode, not waiting to be rescued or seduced.

Issue 249, July 1998. A male figure who’s submissive. Not many of these to be found.

Suggestive/Not Suggestive

One of the persistent claims about sexist imagery and the chainmail bikini phenomenon was that ‘there are just as many images of sweaty topless muscular men, so it evens out’. I wanted to test this on the Dragon cover gallery. So I took any buff-looking figure showing some skin as being suggestively attired.


Issue 13, April 1978. Your classic scantily-clad barbarian type. Recorded as Suggestive.

Issue 326, December 2004. Your classic metal-bikini type. Recorded as Suggestive.

Issue 106, Feb 1986. A long way from your classic chainmail bikini, but still enough skin showing to earn a ‘suggestive’ classification.

I also made one or two judgement calls about other images that didn’t fit the “lotsa skin” criteria if I thought they were suggestive anyway. For example, this image of two dark elf women:

Issue 298, August 2002.

They aren’t showing much skin and they sure aren’t submissive, but I decided to class this as ‘suggestive’ because of their lipstick and the form-fitting armour. But mostly the lipstick. I admit this so at least you know where I’m coming from.

Next: some results


(Deleted comment)
mr_orgue at 2007-03-11 03:21 (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, please. Over on my regular LJ I've drawn it to the attention of all and sundry, hoping to lure some (mostly non-gamer) women over for their comment.
mr_orgue at 2007-03-11 03:39 (UTC) (Link)
An aside re: the point you make about female power sexuality:

I tried to code for suggestive imagery while deliberately ignoring the... what's a good word to describe this, my vocab is failing me... the *stance* of the image. In other words, whether a suggestive depiction is super-servile or super-empowering, it should still come up as an (X) in my records.

The above is in theory, of course; no doubt my personal set of biases and expectations will have led to some wonky coding, but hopefully not enough to make a serious difference.
(Deleted comment)
badgerbag at 2007-03-24 20:29 (UTC) (Link)
I agree with most of your readings of the images, but would classify more of the women's depictions as suggestive (for example the one in your other post which had a woman in a cloak with bare thighs).

This is a really great study, and thanks for doing it!
maurinestarkey at 2007-03-22 21:30 (UTC) (Link)

Drow Women

I haven't kept up with the story lines and the D&D mythos since I was art director for Pools of Darkness (SSI/TSR computer game). The Drow were a female centric culture. So the dominatrix attitude and hyper sexualized female visuals made sense. If their men didn't make the grade, they were made into driders. They were tough and scary in a spider sort of way.

Dragon magazine reminds me of the old Pulp mags. It's all lurid colors and pumped up people in weird positions. I don't take the imagery as seriously as I would a scantily clad woman on the cover of a mainstream magazine like Oprah or Mademoiselle. One shows a life style, the other a fantasy.
iqpierce at 2007-03-27 15:36 (UTC) (Link)

Re: Drow Women

I would take a scantily-clad woman on the cover of Oprah magazine VERY seriously, in fact as an occassion to claw out my eyes.
maurinestarkey at 2007-03-27 18:12 (UTC) (Link)

Re: Drow Women

Claw your eyes out...that's very funny.
jenni_talula at 2007-03-11 04:11 (UTC) (Link)
ZOMG she isn't just helpless in a cage, she's all tiny compared to the man!

I'm really looking forward to seeing what your results are, this is a very interesting idea :)

Missed you at MRW.
broin at 2007-03-11 14:47 (UTC) (Link)
Well, women are shorter.
basal_surge at 2007-03-11 05:14 (UTC) (Link)

This is off on a bit of a tangent, but..

Speaking from the re-enactor/armorer/blacksmith/bowyer who's also a gamer point of view, I find the representation of women in almost all fantasy game art is over sexualised to the point of making them unrealistic for me to use in my imagination of a game situation.

The rampant use of pneumatic fronted female and rippling pectoralled male body types aside, the thing that usually breaks my illusion in fantasy art is that the artists generally have a very low tech knowledge of how the gear they are illustrating is constructed, or works. Hence, even when characters are shown with armor that's more complete than the chainmail bikini, the armor is often stylised to the point of uselessness - the requirement to sexualise the illustrated character leaves chest, shoulders, arms, thighs exposed, making characters extremely vulnerable to one shot kills (Femoral artery, anyone?).

Further, with the exception of a very few (Alan Lee and John Howe spring to mind), most artists seem not to know how armor is constructed or articulated, which leads to over-use of what I refer to as 'strapped on massively thick greavelike plate' armor on limbs and torso which ignores crucial joint protection, and seems drawn to appear as thick plates of cast metal, and the love of spikes on said strapped on plates just leads to a high likelyhood of self disembowellment.

Then there's padding - allmost all armour requires a fair degree of padding beneath to make it properly effective, preferably between half an inch to an inch of it. This is usually a thick, quilted coat, or felt, or horsehair and leather. This, of course, completely writes off any chance of well muscled pecs or pneumatic bosoms being visible through a supple weave of maille, to say the least.

Suffice to say, I agree with this point of view here. Yes, they're representing fantasy situations with all the chainmail bikinisms, but I find gritty reality makes for a better illustration of fantasy worlds.
mr_orgue at 2007-03-11 05:26 (UTC) (Link)

Re: This is off on a bit of a tangent, but..

That is a wonderful cartoon! Its the facial expressions that lift it from good to great :-)
giffydoll at 2007-03-12 06:03 (UTC) (Link)

Re: This is off on a bit of a tangent, but..

broin at 2007-03-11 14:54 (UTC) (Link)
I'm really intrigued to see you do this, but I have so many problems with your methodology.

For a start, what does submissive have to do with sexism? Are partners who want to be tied up and spanked being sexist?

Why is suggestive or revealing clothes important? In my own experience, female players lavish attention on their character's bodices, corsetry and boots. It's dress-up.

And what does suggestive even mean? Suggestive of...?
mr_orgue at 2007-03-11 20:05 (UTC) (Link)
Hey Joe! In summary, I'm doing my best to put some facts into arguments that are already going on.

Treating "submissive" as a category came about after reading Brand's post on one particular image, here. The comments go into this stuff in some detail. Essentially I'm trying to identify trends in depictions of power and status. Arguing about what these trends mean, and what levels of what kind of depiction are appropriate, is another step and I'm not going there in the body of the posts, at least not yet. (But, for example, if big manly men are always rescuing meek submissive women, then that's clearly a problematic gender depiction. Isn't it?)

And of course I'm not implying that submissive sexuality is sexist.

Suggestive is used according to common usage - suggestive of sex (or, according to the dictionary I just googled, suggesting something indecent. Again, arguing about what these trends mean is beyond the scope of the main posts - I'm not trying to claim that revealing clothes are inherently bad (or that they are 'just dress-up'). I am responding to the fact that I've seen, on a number of occasions, women express that they feel unwelcome in the hobby thanks to depictions of women in revealing clothes. I can't help you're being disingenous here; surely you're aware of the chainmail bikini trope and controversy over it, which is proof enough that suggestive clothing is important?

In any case, keep questioning me. I'm trying to do a good job of this, and being robustly questioned is part of that.
itsmrwilson at 2007-03-11 22:27 (UTC) (Link)
I think the issue with submissive is that it's not bad or innacurate to depict one woman as submissive. It's problematic when it becomes a trend or generalization. Submissive becomes the norm. Since there's a history of it, it doesn't take much to keep momentum going. Show illustrations where a small number deviate from what's familiar and it seems like a lot even if it actually isn't.

Regarding the sex-suggestive clothing, same deal. It's problematic when it goes from "welcome and fun if you want" to "this is what's expected." When you have to do that stuff in order to feel welcome, that sucks.
broin at 2007-03-12 17:54 (UTC) (Link)
Kudos, lots of kudos to you for the research. You always get my respect. =)

I completely get that you're not addressing the causes/meanings behind the images. That's another step. I'm... nervous... that the categories you've chosen have inherent biases (and not just because you're such-and-such an age, a Kiwi, a male gamer, etc).

'Indecent' is a great example. There's a moral assumption underlying the word choice. I can also see people looking at categories like 'submissive' uncritically, assuming it to have a moral element you may not have intended.

I can fully understand that women may feel left out of the hobby. Art may well be part of that. No disingenousness here.

(and fwiw, I'd like more women in the hobby)

I'm almost certainly jumping the gun. Post more on the topic, please. :)
mr_orgue at 2007-03-12 23:49 (UTC) (Link)
All of these points are very good. One of the decisions I made going in was to dispense with any pretense of objectivity - my categorisations definitely reflect my morality, even though I am trying to be a "reasonable person" (in the legal sense). And my choice of categories will definitely display some of these biases.

I'm hoping this ends up useful in spite of this stuff. I've realised that I really need to come up with a good finishing post which summarises the limitations of what I've done, as I see them; your comments are helping a great deal with figuring out what that should say.

Thanks man!
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
mr_orgue at 2007-03-11 21:33 (UTC) (Link)
Those are really interesting and useful. Cheers. I did a cursory google for something like that before starting, but when I didn't find something in my first pass I decided to just use my personal response, rather than an outside set of criteria; I had some rationale or other that I really should have written down. My get-out-of-jail-free card is that the image set is entirely online, so if anyone wants to test my evaluations (which I encourage!) they can do so.

In any case, these are definitely going into the for-future-reference pile.

That 'feminine touching' thing strikes a particular nerve - I never would have identified it myself, but now that it is pointed out I can think of loads of instances.
jimboboz at 2007-03-22 03:23 (UTC) (Link)
"Licensed Withdrawal. Women more than men are pictured engaged in involvements which remove them psychologically from the social situation at large, leaving them unoriented in it and to it, and dependent on the protectiveness of others who are present. Turning one's gaze away from another's can be seen as having the consequence of withdrawing from the current thrust of communication."

So that's why brides in photographs are always looking away from the man they're embracing, and at the camera or in the sky? I never understood that.
badgerbag at 2007-03-24 20:34 (UTC) (Link)
Ooooo. Thanks peaseblossom! This is a great explanation of a complicated thing...
giffydoll at 2007-03-12 06:03 (UTC) (Link)
I wanna see the results!!
mr_orgue at 2007-03-12 23:46 (UTC) (Link)
Slowly they appear, slowly... three quarters done now. All posted on Gametime, mind, not mr_orgue.
mkcs at 2007-03-16 08:19 (UTC) (Link)
The lipstick? Not, you know, the moulded nipples on the armor?
irrhapsodi at 2008-01-09 13:13 (UTC) (Link)
Yeah! What good reason for those? Except distraction..."Look /here/!"
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